Four impressive Art Deco murals over the Library's main interior staircases represent, in allegorical, historical, and exotic figures, the Polar, Celestial, Eastern, and Western Hemispheres. That was not the way it was meant to be.
For the faculty committee advising on decorations for the new Library in 1926, enough could be seen on campus of murals with traditional nineteenth-century themes. Newton Alonzo Wells' murals expressed the uplifting spirit of the first library building (Altgeld Hall), and Frank Millet's grandiose Return of Ulysses, made for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, filled the space above the Auditorium stage. (Nicknamed "Everybody Works but Father," it disintegrated after being stored during a 1939 refurbishment.) A shift to recognizable imagery and real events was wanted. When it came to deciding on specifics, however, the academics and the artist had differing outlooks. The professors' thinking reveals a developing pride in regional culture and history. Barry Faulkner, the successful New York painter given the commission, was bound to the idea that architectural art ought to be primarily decorative.
The committee suggested Faulkner depict Indian villages with "trails passing hither and thither," fur traders and settlers battling precarious currents in flatboats; wilderness forts, primitive towns, and even Cave-in-Rock bandits; and for more contemporary times, little trains, prairie schooners, Great Lakes steamers, modem railroads, automobiles, and airplanes.
Faulkner offered instead sketches having an iconographic scheme of four hemispheres, "more appropriate for a library of a great university." Further efforts to influence him failed and the would-be mural planners finally accepted his ideas, conceding it would be "unwise to dictate to the artist." The library director got right to the point, confessing he had hoped the designs would be a little less conventional and related "a little more intimately to the part of the world which we, in this country, call the Middle West."
The murals employ striking compositional schemes of circular map areas within larger rectangles. Curved latitudinal and longitudinal lines simulate the globe's three-dimensional form. Dark blues and greens, muted brick-reds, and grays predominate. Sallow, almost greenish flesh tones and a generally cold palette intensify icy north and night sky scenes. Lighter complexions and hues of greater saturation reinforce tropical motifs. All four are period pieces in the Art Deco style, first known as Art Moderne (from the Exposition lnternationale des Arts Decoratifs et lndustriels Modernes, Paris, 1925), which emphasized the spirit of modernity, streamlining, and speed, and abundantly showed, in simplified forms and sleek lines, animals such as greyhounds, gazelles, jaguars, panthers, and porpoises, and long-legged and graceful athletes and dancers.
Of the Polar Hemisphere, Faulkner said only that the North Wind blew back ships attempting to cross arctic regions and that the "explorers' constant companions," Death and Fame, hovered over the arctic adventurers, Richard E. Byrd and Robert E. Peary. Classical allusions aside, Fame is very much of the twentieth century, her coiffure remarkably incorporating both bobbed-flapper and idealized-goddess styles.
ln the Celestial Hemisphere, animal and human forms in identifiable constellations and other hazy, ghostly configurations rotate and move mysteriously in and out, animating the painting. Two female figures represent Day and Night. Ptolemy, the celebrated Greco-Egyptian astronomer of antiquity, squints through a small telescope. Copernicus charts the universe amid a clutter of astronomical appurtenances. The sun is shown as a petaled flower-baby staring pop-eyed at Ptolemy, while an open-mouthed, waning moon floats between Night and Copernicus.
Well might the sun stare. Within two weeks of the mural's installation, alert academicians dispatched an urgent message advising that "It is clear that the figure labeled Ptolemy, who is represented as using a spy glass, or telescope, appears likely to bring the institution into a certain kind of ridicule. As one member of the faculty says, 'They might almost as well have Caesar crossing the Alps in an aeroplane.' We should all regret, of course, to have some prominent writer or other person give undesirable publicity to this painting." Perhaps, they suggested, the name "Galileo" could block out Ptolemy's.
Apprised of "the commotion among the astronomers," an undaunted Faulkner told the architect that he thought it "pretty certain that if those clever Alexandrines didn't have lenses they at least looked through tubes so as to isolate the portions of the heavens they wished to observe. I wonder if it's certainly known that they didn't have kinds of primitive lenses. So many things were known to the Greeks and then lost. I didn't investigate carefully when I painted Ptolemy... but I think the tube idea passes it off tolerably well. Anyhow, what is an anachronism between friends?"
Evidently nothing. The offending telescope is exactly as Faulkner created it in 1926, and no one in recent memory has paid it any notice.
In the Eastern Hemisphere, shadowy, silhouetted sea creatures swim in vast watery spaces. A nude woman identified as the South Wind spans the Indian Ocean. Female personifications of India and Egypt, bedecked in opulent jewelry, belly bands, and insubstantial peach-colored drapery falling in archaic zigzag folds, stand at either side. After Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered in 1922, the vogue for Egyptian design motifs strongly affected Art Deco production, and pseudo-Egyptian hairstyles, furniture, costumes, and other objects designed in this fashion remained popular until the early thirties.
A whip-brandishing Venus in a half-shell chariot skims across the Pacific Ocean in the Western Hemisphere. The Mississippi and Amazon rivers are two scantily clad indigenous figures in a tropical setting. Exotic places found expression in all decorative arts of the period. Much work in the Art Deco style reflects not only Peruvian and Brazilian sources but motifs taken also from Aztec, American Indian, Egyptian, Far Eastern, and Russian artifacts.
Illustrations of Faulkner's highly regarded art appeared regularly in architectural and interior design journals. A 1927 issue of Architecture characterized his residential decorations and screens as "charming," his Cunard Building sea charts as "quite the finest of their kind," and his work in general as having "the quiet reserve of the painters of the early Renaissance, and a very beautiful modem sense of color." Examples of his mosaics and painted murals are in the older John Hancock Building, Boston; the National Archives, Washington; and the American cemeteries at Thiaucourt and Suresnes, France.